What are the best uses of voiceover in film? Terrence Malick's 'Badlands' or 'Days of Heaven' perhaps, or 'The Magnificent Ambersons' maybe? The use of omniscient narration describing off-screen action, motivation and characters' inner thoughts can be seen as a lazy tool for screenwriters. But when it's done right, it can be a magical thing. Few can argue the tremendous effect of the voiceover from 'Goodfellas', one of the great pop cultural landmark films of our time.
Goodfellas(1990) dir. Martin Scorsese
Starring: Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino
By Alan Bacchus
Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas is a return to the streetwise, low-level gangster characters of Raging Bull and Mean Streets. It served as kind of an antidote to the Godfather effect, that is the glorification and romanticism of the mafia as charming, well dressed pseudo bourgeois aristocrats. Scorsese's gangsters are working class bullies who use the tantalizing temptations of capitalism to the extreme, living a life free of all control.
The opening scene in 1970, finding the body of Billy Bats still alive in the trunk of Henry Hill's car, is a classic, parachuting us into the narrative, then doubling back to continue the scene midway into the picture. And it’s not just an arbitrary scene, but the key decision in the film by the main characters, which ultimately spelled their downfall. After this prelude, Scorsese's hero, Henry Hill, opens up the story with one of the best lines - "As far back as I can remember I've always wanted to be a gangster". It begins the amusing, violent, grotesque and bystantine epic story of the New York/New Jersey mafia in the '70s and '80s.
Henry Hill's voiceover provides an intimate entry into the world so familiar in movies and TV, yet it's completely fresh and authentic. In the opening act, Henry moves from child wannabe to a young hotshot hoodlum who ingratiates himself deep into the mafia. While he surrounds himself with two of the most ruthless gangsters we've ever seen in film - Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy De Vito (Joe Pesci) - watch closely and you'll see Henry characterized as an outsider who never really gets his hands dirty in the dirtiest parts of the business. With the death of Billy Bats, for instance, Scorsese is careful to show Hill's shocked reaction to Jimmy and Tommy's violent beating. This allows the audience to see the world through the eyes of a man with a conscience, and however delusional and drugged out he might be, he's the film's everyman.
Back to the voiceover...the great moments occur early in the film. Take the introduction of Karen. In the restaurant Scorsese switches from Henry’s voiceover to Karen’s voiceover, which comes completely out of left field. Yet, as cut by Thelma Schoonmaker and the sound editors, the transition is seamless. The voiceover reads not like inner monologue but documentary interviews. This style ties in so wonderfully in the end during the inspired moment when Henry Hill suddenly breaks the fourth wall while on the stand and starts talking to the camera. As if the entire movie were part of his confession to breaking the two cardinal rules told to him by Jimmy Conway, "Never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut".
As much as the film is visceral and violent, Scorsese's mix of violence with humour has never been done better. Again, the Billy Bats killing is brutal. But watch the transition into the next scene, the riotously funny dinner scene with Scorsese’s mother, a contrast which keeps the audience oscillated between these two extremes - What is it, a paw? A hoof?
Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing compresses the time brilliantly, rendering an ambitious 20-year narrative into a elegant flow of image and sound that washes over the viewer like a bedtime story. One of the best scenes is the Bamboo Lounge sequence. In a matter of 60 seconds the restaurant is partnered with the mob, they make tons of money and then it’s a losing venture and is being torched.
But when they want to, Scorsese and Schoonmaker slow down the pace to highlight the key moments in Henry's journey. The best scene, and one of greatest ever set pieces in motion picture history, is the day that leads up to Henry's capture. After spending almost two hours showing the course of 20 years, Scorsese throws a microscope on one particular day in Henry's life. It's a thrilling sequence that shows Henry giving instructions to his brother over the phone on how to make pasta while being filled with paranoia and watching the skies for a helicopter that may or may not be spying on him. He then drives around town delivering guns for Jimmy Conway and oversees a drug deal while coking himself out to the max. In this one great scene, Scorsese sums up the lifestyle of Henry Hill playing on the edge at all times. He's a hair's breath away from being put away for life and this makes Goodfellas the greatest gangster film ever made.